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Peter T Chattaway

The Case for Christ (2017)

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FWIW, my interview with Lee Strobel.

I have some thoughts about the film that I'd love to turn into something review-ish/commentary-ish, but family matters have kept me very busy lately. In a nutshell, though, they would go something like this: I am generally on-board with the film's apologetic thrust when it comes to *the Resurrection*, but I am leery of the way it steers clear of anything that might upset the evangelical belief in *biblical inerrancy*.

Case in point: There is a scene in which Strobel talks to William Lane Craig over the phone, and he says there are "contradictions" in the gospels. The specific example he cites is the fact that different gospels have different lists of names for the women who discovered the empty tomb. Craig replies that authentic eyewitness testimony always has these sorts of discrepancies when it comes to the secondary details, or something like that. That's a good reply, but Strobel's example is easily dealt with (the fact that a gospel doesn't mention a specific woman as being part of the group doesn't mean that she wasn't there), and a more serious objection might have been something like the fact that Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene *before* she tells the disciples about the empty tomb in Matthew's gospel, but he doesn't appear to her until *after* she tells the disciples about the empty tomb in John's gospel. Or, given how much emphasis this film puts on I Corinthians 15 and the reference to 500 witnesses in there, it's a little odd that the film's Strobel never points out that Paul's account of the Resurrection leaves the women out altogether and says that Jesus appeared to *Peter* first, which would seem to contradict what most of the gospels say (though it seems that Paul's account influenced Luke's gospel, which omits any reference to Jesus visiting the women before he visited Peter -- and that's a striking omission, given that Luke's gospel is far more concerned about the female disciples in general than the other gospels are).

Obviously I don't necessarily expect a dramatic film to get *too* lost in the weeds of these sorts of arguments. But there comes a point in the film, as Strobel is getting closer to becoming a Christian, where we see a close-up of his hand wiping the phrase "contradictions in the gospels" (or some such thing) off of his whiteboard. Strobel does not merely come to believe that the Resurrection happened, he also apparently comes to believe that there's nothing to see here, contradiction-wise. And that's just not so.

Stuff like this matters to me because I went through a major spiritual crisis in the mid-1990s that was partly spurred by my exposure to a book by Burton Mack called The Lost Gospel: Q and Its Origins. I had grown up with the idea that, if one was only logical and studied the gospels for themselves, one would have to become a Christian just like C.S. Lewis did. My first serious exposure to a scholar who *had* studied the gospels and had come to a radically *non*-Christian set of conclusions shook me, big time, and the youth pastor I turned to was no help, because he said the important thing was not who Jesus *was* but who Jesus *is*. (When I asked another pastor if there were any first-hand accounts of the Resurrection appearances, instead of the clearly second-hand accounts in the gospels, he said he'd get back to me but he never did; eventually, however, I realized that such an account does appear in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.) So I ended up reading a lot of historical-Jesus scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, E.P. Sanders, John P. Meier and others, and I even got to interview N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg (the latter of whom said there was a joke running around in scholarly circles to the effect that Burton Mack's Jesus died when he was hit by a bus; apparently the scholar behind my first major exposure to historical-Jesus scholarship was considered one of the most radical scholars out there, and was someone for whom it didn't really matter *how* Jesus had died). Wright, of course, was particularly important to me; when I attended a lecture of his at Regent College for the first time, he made a big point of saying that we had to address who Jesus *was* and not just who he *is*, and it felt like I had *finally* found an orthodox Christian who was speaking historians' language. (I have sometimes said that I don't know if I would still be a Christian if it were not for Wright, and I'm not exactly exaggerating when I say that.)

So, that was all in the early to late 1990s, and then, somewhere in the middle of all that, Strobel published his book The Case for Christ in 1998. I know I read it at the time, but I don't think I reviewed it, so I might not have any written record of what I thought about it at the time. But my vague recollection is that the book seemed like a series of straw-man arguments, in which Strobel set himself up as the straw man. I can't recall anything in particular that I *disagreed* with in the book, but it did seem awfully thin to me, after all the reading (and interviewing) that I had been doing over the previous several years. And on a certain level, the Strobel of the film seems a bit straw-man-ish to me, too. Especially when he neglects to raise objections that would be obvious to anyone who had really tangled with this subject.

I guess one of the things I'm concerned about is that this film feeds into the same myth that I grew up with re: C.S. Lewis: anyone who is honest and simply studies the gospels will have to conclude that Jesus really did rise from the dead, etc. That myth did not prepare me for the skepticism I found in Burton Mack's book. And to the extent that that myth is facilitated by a false sense of security -- by a mistaken belief that there is nothing to see here, contradiction-wise, in the gospels -- I guess I worry that the film is setting other people up for the sort of spiritual crisis that *I* had in my early 20s.

I did like the film, though. It's got some funny bits and some authentic emotional moments, and like I say, I'm generally on-board with the film's primary apologetic agenda. (I am also impressed that the film includes a Catholic priest among its interviewees; this kind of makes up for the de-Catholicization of certain elements in God's Not Dead, which was produced by the same studio.) But I do worry a bit about some of this other stuff.

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It's ironic to me that Peter mentions the treatment of Catholicism here, as one of the main things that I was struck by is the representation of race. Towards the end of my article on "Left Behind as Evangelical Pornography" I tried to respond to one (anonymous) reviewer's assessment that I was doing a "paranoid reading" and asking whether it would be possible to do a reparative reading. I wrote a little about race and Catholicism:



 It is somewhat surprising, given the historical proclivity of anti-Catholic bias in eschatological thought, that the sitting Pope is among the elect who are raptured in the Left Behind series. Granted, Catholic readers may not be especially comforted by the fact that the raptured Pope is replaced by a figurehead puppet of the anti-Christ and that the raptured Pope is said to have bewildered some traditional Catholics with teachings that seem close to Protestantism. Even so, if my central presupposition is correct and Left Behind is addressed primarily to an evangelical audience, then part of the message being addressed to this audience is that the modern conception of those who will be saved is more ecumenical than many pre-twentieth-century strains of fundamentalist or evangelical thought. Wells and Woodbridge, point out, for instance, that the threats of modernism and secularism tended to obscure the differences between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (14). A reparative reading of Left Behind might situate it as part of an evangelical trend that obscures denominational differences in favor of allegiance to a monotheistic God.

American evangelicalism has had a particularly difficult time categorizing and incorporating African-American Christianity. George M. Marsden writes, “Because of racial segregation that isolated them from their white counterparts, they seldom used the term ‘evangelical,’ and their experience is usually regarded as a distinct type in itself” (46). The casting of Clarence Gilyard and T.D. Jakes as the pastors of the church where Rayford’s wife and child attended, suggest that the vision of evangelicalism presented by the series is multicultural. A skeptic might point out that neither character is ethnically identified in the text of Left Behind and wonder whether this casting was an attempt to expand the market for the film. One might also wonder whether a racially mixed church, pre-rapture, in the upper-middle-class Chicago suburbs is a credible representation of reality. Even so, if an underlying point of Left Behind is that it projects how evangelicals and fundamentalists wish to see themselves, it is worth noting that they wish to see themselves (and to actually be) racially diverse. The final scene of the Tribulation Force movie underscores this point; the new church being formed by post-rapture conversions contains a mix of races.


I was thinking about this last paragraph a lot during the early scenes of The Case for Christ as we get the trope of the religiously enlightened Black contrasted to the intellectually arrogant white. 

There is something in the treatment of race in these films (Pure Flix, Sherwood, LB) that genuinely puzzles me. At times I think it is aspirational, but at other times I feel like it it (and I use this word advisedly), politically correct...an indication of something that the writers/creators know should be but when they try to draw it comes out like nothing I've ever seen in real life. 

Edited by kenmorefield

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